Will Russia Need to Take an Operational Pause in Ukraine?: As Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine passes its fourth grueling month, speculation has begun to emerge whether the Russian armed forces will be able to sustain its current pace of operations while enduring current rates of materiel and personnel losses. In its current form, Russia’s invasion has taken on the character of a war of attrition which is proving immensely costly to the armed forces of both Ukraine and Russia. Russia’s Ground Forces will likely sustain their operations into the medium-term future (the next several weeks or months) without a long operational pause with some of its chosen half-measures in place.
However, Russia could need to take a substantial operational pause or smaller pauses on a tactical, battlefield level, if or when these measures exhaust their usefulness, so long as Moscow continues its existing strategy of limited mobilization.
The Pace of Combat in Ukraine
While Russia has made some incremental advances in the past two months after redirecting its attention and forces towards the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east, Ukrainian forces have put up a significant fight in defending the region.
While the Ukrainian city of Sieverodonetsk has come under Russian control after becoming the focal point of weeks of fighting, the battle was emblematic of how Russia’s war in Ukraine is being fought. It wasn’t until the end of a weeks-long battle for the city that its Ukrainian defenders retreated on June 24 to more defensible positions in the city of Lysychansk, incurring substantial casualties on both sides.
While exact casualty estimates are hard to come by and are closely guarded secrets by Moscow, the BBC has been able to confirm the deaths of more than 4,000 Russian servicemen. This total includes members of the Russian Armed Forces, the Russian National Guard, and employees of Russia’s special services. While Ukrainian government sources claim that more than 30,000 Russian servicemen have been killed, it is difficult to find sources which can corroborate such claims.
When other formations operating on Moscow’s behalf, such as troops loyal to the Russian-backed LNR and DNR statelets or Russian private military companies such as the Wagner Group are added in, these losses could be much higher.
Russia isn’t only losing personnel on the battlefields of Ukraine; it is also losing military equipment and expending ammunition at very high rates. Open-source verification of Russian losses by the independent blog Oryx reveals that Russian forces have lost almost 800 tanks, and more than 400 armored fighting vehicles, almost 900 infantry fighting vehicles, as well as a variety of other vehicles of other classes and functions.
Russia had also lost 29 aircraft as of May 30, which, along with the losses of ground-based equipment, certainly exceeds what Russian leaders likely estimated they would have lost in its invasion, which was intended to have a duration of days rather than months.
As part of its massive employment of long-range fires in Donbas to break the combat ability of Ukraine’s forces there, recent estimates claim that Russia is firing around 50,000 artillery rounds per day into Ukraine – a steep cost that even the most developed defense industrial bases would struggle to uphold indefinitely without some kind of mobilization.
Can Russia Continue Without Mobilizing?
According to Western intelligence sources, Russian forces are currently expending gear and lives to make incremental gains at best at rates unsustainable to sustain for more than a few months into the future. At the moment, Russian leaders seem to at least partially recognized this risk, and have undertaken what outside observers have dubbed a “partial mobilization,” which includes some benefits and downsides of operating on a wartime or peacetime economy. Russia’s pre-war force design and balance between contract soldiers and officially non-deployable conscripts continues to hamstring the Russian Armed Force’s ability to rotate forces and replenish losses. According to Ukrainian estimates, Russia has committed more than 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, a significant portion of its deployable conscript troops.
Despite external speculation that the Kremlin would use May 9 Victory Day celebrations to declare a general mobilization, President Vladimir Putin’s administration has so far been unwilling to take that step, which would likely be a risky commitment to foist on the Russian population for his own regime. Instead, Moscow has relied on a patchwork of efforts to accomplish its partial mobilization, including calling up reservists, pressuring conscripts to sign service contracts, and recruitment drives in peripheral regions of Russia that are more economically depressed than the metropole and are home to some of the many minority groups which make up the Russian Federation.
Some federal subjects such as Dagestan, Buryatia, and Chechnya have disproportionate casualties among servicemen recruited from their populations, a possible indication of who is taking the brunt of fighting for the so-called “Russian world.” The authorities in the LNR and DNR statelets have also embraced a wide-reaching strategy of recruiting practically anyone of fighting age for deployment to the front lines of Russia’s war with minimal training, causing some to complain of being used as cannon fodder.
Russia will find it increasingly difficult to continue down its chosen path of trying to have the best of both worlds with its partial mobilization of the Russian population for its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. So long as the Kremlin is wedded to the mental picture of its invasion as a limited intervention, it is effectively fighting with one hand behind its back. This will likely hamstring the ability of Russia’s invasion force to accomplish its goals on a quick timeline, which would necessitate taking operational pauses to recoup fighting strength in the coming months.
Once such an inflection point is reached, the Kremlin could be forced to decide between kicking off a large-scale mobilization that could quickly become unpopular or continuing to fight under partial mobilization and risk sporadic operational pauses as a result of critically overstretched material supplies and manpower reserves.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.